Black Widow: A Fitting Goodbye to a Beloved Character, and an Extraordinary Subversion of the Espionage Genre


Image Courtesy of Vox

By Garrett Farrell

More than a year after its initial release date, Marvel Studios’ Black Widow finally hit theaters on July 9, 2021. However, for many fans, the wait for the movie was much longer. Fans of the eponymous super-spy have been waiting for a big-screen outing that centers on the character since she was first introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2010’s Iron Man 2. This might just be the fact that Black Widow was the first movie I saw in theaters in 18 months, but boy does it make the wait worthwhile.

Honestly, before this movie came out, I was thoroughly uninterested in it. I thought that the time to make the movie had passed and that Scarlett Johansson’s character was so well developed and fleshed out that there was little need to give her a movie; not to mention that, in my opinion, part of what makes the character interesting is the enigmatic nature of her origin. 

I expected a movie full of knowing winks, nods to a previously hinted at backstory, and a long-overdue explanation of  WHAT HAPPENED IN BUDAPEST. Though this is generally what we got, what I did not expect was that it would be given to us in one of the most clever spy movies in recent years. Given the 2010s trend of clever spy movies such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., James Bond’s Skyfall, and the Kingsman franchise, this is quite impressive.

Black Widow is set immediately following 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The titular Natasha Romanoff, who is now an international fugitive, goes into hiding briefly before her long lost ‘sister,’ Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), comes to her asking for her help in taking down The Red Room, an underground site that abducts young girls and molds them physically and mentally into master assassins Natasha and Yelena are joined in this mission by Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). 

Black Widow is an exquisite espionage thriller, although this statement needs some qualification. Black Widow is an excellent spy movie in the way The Incredibles is an excellent superhero movie: it isn’t really a spy movie, it’s a family movie that cleverly plays off traditional tropes of the espionage genre in the same way The Incredibles played off of traditional tropes of the superhero genre. 

The characters that join Natasha are the only family she’s ever known, which is particularly sad when we find out that they were only together for three years on a deep-cover mission in Ohio. The twists on the traditional mainstays of spy movies are what take Black Widow from good to great: the betrayal by someone the protagonist trusts, the antagonist explaining his plans to the hero in his secret lair, and the hero drinking perhaps a bit too much are some of the tropes that the movie has the most fun subverting. The only trope that is present in an unadulterated form is the hero running away from an explosion in slow motion.

While I would love nothing more than talking solely about the ways in which this movie is fantastic, it does have its flaws. The two most notable flaws are the traditional Marvel pitfall of a forgettable villain and that there is no real suspense for the main character. The first issue is one that the MCU has been struggling with since the very beginning. The primary antagonists of the movie, Dr. Dreykov and Taskmaster, are never really fleshed out and have very basic motivations. The former simply wants to achieve world domination, and the latter, in spite of some genius fight scenes with Romanoff, is solely motivated by revenge. This is somewhat disappointing considering the MCU seemed to be moving past these issues in the latter half of Phase 3 with stellar villains such as Thanos, Adrian Toomes, and Erik Killmonger.

With regards to the second major flaw, anyone who has seen earlier movies in the MCU knows that the main character will make it out of this movie relatively unscathed. This generally negates any attempt to build tension around the fate of the character. However, as usual, Marvel leverages the fact that this movie is part of a larger cinematic universe to its advantage in the post-credit scene. The rest of this article contains spoilers for the post-scene and episodes 5 and 6 of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

The post-credit scene shows Yelena visiting Natasha’s tombstone after the events of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. While she is paying her respects to her sister, she is approached by Julia Louis Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, who was previously introduced in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It is revealed that Yelena is in the employ of the Contessa, and she (Yelena) is offered the chance to exact revenge on the man responsible for her sister’s death: Clint Barton, the MCU’s current Hawkeye. 

This presumably sets up the plot for the forthcoming Hawkeye series on Disney+; however, it adds an interesting wrinkle to Dreyfus’ character in the MCU and poses the question, “Exactly how much political power does the Contessa have, and what does she plan to do with it?” Given the interesting comic storylines involving the character, and the fact that Dreyfus is one of the finest actresses alive, there is no shortage of possibilities for the character’s future in the MCU.

Ultimately, Black Widow is a movie that provides the viewer with closure about one of the central characters in the MCU and finally gives a stellar actress the chance to truly shine on her own without being a supporting character. The movie deftly balances a standalone storyline and its existence in a larger cinematic universe, but at the end of the day, what else do we expect from Marvel Studios? After all, they are the undisputed king of this balance.

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